A Seal’s Lullaby

May 10, 2024 | Adventures, Animals, Environment, Marine science, Nature, Ocean Life, Oceans, Outdoors

Their sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies dive deep and glide gracefully through the sea. On land they “galumph,” rolling back on their hind flippers then belly-flopping forward. Although harbor seals  and other pinnipeds (fin-footed animals, including sea lions and walruses) may seem more at home in water, their distant ancestors once walked the earth.

Like us, harbor seals are warm-blooded, air-breathing mammals with hearts and lungs. The first time I observed a breeding colony, I realized that I have something else in common with females of the species:  We are Moms, fiercely devoted to and protective of our children.

Far more prolific than humans, harbor seals typically give birth to a single pup every year. They can delay gestation for two months after mating; pregnancy lasts about nine months. In northern California, pupping season extends from March through May. Moms-to-be “haul out” and join an informal sisterhood of expectant seals. Their favored locations are secluded beaches, sand bars, and estuaries that provide shelter from predators and easy access to the ocean.

Newborns, weighing 20 to 24 pounds, enter the world with enormous dark eyes, round heads, and whimsical whiskers.  Shedding the white lacuna that covered them in the womb, they sport thick, spotted gray, brown, or black fur coats.  On any index of irresistibly cute animal babies, they would rank at the top.

Bonding starts immediately. Mothers nuzzle new arrivals, nursing them with rich milk that is 40 percent fat. As they snuggle,  mother and child become familiar with each other’s unique scents, produced by glands in their flippers and around their muzzles.

Moms communicate in their own version of baby talk. Pups respond with a  bleating cry that sounds—at least to a human ear– like “maaaaa.”  Scents and sounds help mothers and their offspring find each other in a crowded rookery.

Born lean and lanky, pups grow quickly, doubling their birth weight in their first two months.  Ever playful, they paddle alongside their mothers in the sea, climbing onto their backs when they tire. As their offspring become stronger, moms  instruct them in the ways of their watery world—swimming, diving, and frolicking to hone reflexes and skills.

Idyllic as their seaside childhoods may seem, danger lurks.  Protective moms use their 200-plus-pound bodies and snarling mouths to fend off predators on land and sea. Yet only about half of pups survive their first year. They are most vulnerable when their moms leave to forage for fish and crustaceans in the ocean.

Humans pose another danger. When startled by a beach-walker, kayaker, or boater, a mother seal lifts her head—the first sign of distress. If the threat persists, she may seek safety in the sea, abandoning her pup—sometimes permanently.

One fine Spring day, from a lookout along California’s Route 1, I focused my binoculars on a line of seal moms and their pups lying snout to snout, whiskers to whiskers. Their voices, wafting in the wind, sounded like a soothing chant.

A similar scene may have inspired the famed British writer Rudyard Kipling. In his poem, “A Seal’s Lullaby,” a seal croons to her pup

“Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas.”

In 2007 the composer Eric  Whitacre set the lyric to music. His choral ode captures the rhythms of the sea and of mothers everywhere rocking their sweet babes to sleep. Click here to watch a performance on YouTube.

For more information on protecting marine mammals, visit Seal Watch, a volunteer program of the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.

Photos by Dianne Monroe

Dianne Hales, a New York Times best-selling author, serves as a docent and research volunteer at the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve; a tide pool guide for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods; and a monitor for the Seabird Protection Network.

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